By Matty T

In an observation attributed to everyone from the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy to Louis Armstrong to Johnny Cash, folk music has been defined as anything that folks sing. “It must be a folk song, I ain’t heard no horses sing it.” This definition, pithy as it may be, is not a very satisfactory one, and is usually trotted out as a trump card to bring an end to arguments among folk music scholars and enthusiasts over what exactly a folk song is. The following rough definition of folk music is closer to one more usually judged correct by folksong scholars: music rooted in or inspired by traditional culture, typically with no identifiable author or composer and primarily transmitted via oral tradition. Folk is better understood as a process rather than a genre, and the rise of commercial media such as radio and recordings means there is very little authentic folk music being produced today, with the exception of some rap and street poetry, children’s music, and bawdy songs.

Folk music today is more typically associated with the folk and pop-folk groups from the 1960s urban folk music revival, an association that also links the music to left-wing political lyrics. While mainly viewed as a middle-class phenomenon (in terms of both audience and performers), the political aspects of folk music are actually drawn from much older, proletarian influences. That the folk revival in the United States and Great Britain became associated with Leftism is something of an anomaly; folk music revivals in other parts of the world have more commonly been associated with revivals of nationalism. When assessing the influence of left-wing politics on the folk revival, two families are highly significant: the Lomaxes and the Seegers.

The Almanac Singers, an early left-wing folk group.

The first rumblings of the folk revival, which was to “rescue” folk music from obscurity among the middle classes, began sometime in the mid to late 1930s. In a time of increasing modernization, mechanization, and economic strife, many found themselves drawn toward folk culture. The troubles of the Great Depression would be endured by adherence to the traditions of “natural” culture, which would reinvigorate an alienated mainstream “starved for rooted cultural energy and authenticity.”[1] (The latent political dangers in such an idealized and romantic view of rural proletarians should be obvious.) Those drawn toward folk culture included left-wing intellectuals such as Charles Seeger, who had in 1931 joined a group called the Composer’s Collective, an offshoot of the Communist Party’s International Music Bureau and the Pierre Degeyter Club (named after the composer of “The Internationale). This group proposed the use of “revolutionary” (read: dissonant) music as a means of furthering left-wing goals by inspiring class struggle and uplifting the musical tastes of American proletarians. In this respect, they were a precursor – by negative example – of later left-wing vernacular music groups such as the Almanac Singers and People’s Songs. Seeger, increasingly enchanted with folk music, left the group in 1935 and with his wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger, worked closely with folklorists John and Alan Lomax collecting, documenting, and transcribing folk songs from traditional musicians for the Library of Congress and folk song anthologies. Seeger passed on his political and musical views to children, Pete, Peggy, and Michael Seeger.[2] Pete Seeger in particular would be highly influential on the most visible wing of the urban folk music revival; under the tutelage of Woody Guthrie, Seeger is primarily responsible for creating the popular association between commercial folk music and left-wing political protest.

The connection itself, as mentioned previously, is older; more authentic, non-commercial folk music traditions with explicitly political lyrics are exemplified by musicians such as Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, and Sara Ogan Gunning, relatives who hailed from Harlan County, Kentucky and whose music was indelibly marked by that area’s notoriously bloody labor struggles. This is easily seen when listening to their original songs, which deal with everything from the murder of the 21-year-old union organizer Harry Simms by hired company guns to the cries of starving children orphaned by mining accidents to the “dreadful memories” of one’s own children wasting away from pellagra. Florence Reese’s “Which Side Are You On,” a labor anthem second only to the iconic “Solidarity Forever” in popularity, also came out of this region and the same struggles. These grim, stark musical snapshots of class struggle and poverty in Appalachia contrast heavily to the commercial protest songs from the height of the folk revival, most of which tended to use poetic language and to be heavily introspective (compare “how many miles must a white dove sail” to “dump the bosses off your back”). These older songs of proletarian protest tend toward plain, even blunt, language; one of Sara Ogan Gunning’s songs calls for capitalism to be destroyed in the fiery pits of hell.

Pro-union singer and songwriter Aunt Molly Jackson.

Jackson, Garland, and Gunning were all union members and organizers, and as such tended to, at least occasionally, present solutions to the troubles they documented through their music; one song exhorted listeners to join the CIO. Most of the Appalachian people composing songs reflecting class struggle and related concerns, however, were simply musicians, and proposed no definite solutions to the problems they sang about, other than perhaps the hope of Heaven, defined only via complaint about the problems of the Earth. Their songs were political in the sense that they were documents of the proletarian experience composed by the people themselves, but not in the sense of pamphleteering or organizing. Like Jackson, Garland, and Gunning, these singers had until relatively recently been steeped in oral tradition; part of this tradition consisted of making up songs dealing with contemporary problems using traditional themes and melodies.[3] Appalachian folk musicians tended to face their problems in their songs with a certain wry, knowing, but resigned humor, an attitude which has never vanished from the region.

Sanitized though it was, by the late 50s it was clear that folk music was now a viable commercial offering. The geographical isolation of the region had long made Appalachia a favorite hunting ground for folklorists interested in song. “Song-catchers” such as Cecil Sharp had come to Appalachia in search of ancient ballads (primarily from Francis James Child’s famous collection) from the British isles, preserved in the hills and handed down through the generations. Sharp was uninterested in the other music that coexisted with these ballads and did not observe or report it.[4] Later, commercial recording companies would sometimes seek new talent in Appalachian communities. With the advent of the folk song boom, Appalachia was viewed as a potential source for new songs and new singers. This led to many musicians being “discovered” and others who had recorded in the past being “rediscovered.” Many songs initially collected in the mountains became part of the repertoire of urban singers, though many urban musicians were either unaware of or did not acknowledge their sources. Folk revival musician John Cohen recalled that while visiting Kentucky musician “Banjo” Bill Cornett, Cornett was initially hostile due to his suspicion of folklorists, who he was afraid would record his songs and then copyright them in their own name. Cohen also noted that none of the musicians he met on that collecting trip ever used the word “folk” to categorize what they were doing, although the terms “country” and “hillbilly” did come up.[5]

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, of Chapel Hill, NC, was one of the many rural musicians who was “discovered” during the folk revival.

While many older musicians enjoyed the success that the folk revival brought to them, others were nonplussed by the revivalists who drew on their music. Some objected to the polished, collegiate, commercial style the old songs were now being presented in – Frank Proffitt, the North Carolina musician who was the source for the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Tom Dooley,” objected to the trio’s “clowning and hip-swinging” as they performed the song on television, which made him feel “sorty [sic] sick” and “as if [he] had lost a loved one.”[6] For others, it was strictly a matter of politics. This was especially true of the more old-fashioned artists who were becoming increasingly irrelevant to commercial country scene but were being newly appreciated as folk musicians, mostly by young, urban, politically liberal or progressive fans.

After the mid-60s, the folk music revival began to wane, with commercial urban singers virtually entirely eclipsing the traditional artists who they had long overshadowed in popularity. The 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan, the most popular writer of protest music to come out of the folk boom and thus the direct continuation of the Guthrie/Seeger tradition, followed Cousin Emmy, an extremely traditional rural artist, with an electric rock set, effectively signaled the revival’s end as a mainstream phenomenon. Traditional Appalachian music had by then already found a home for itself in the field of bluegrass music, where it remains to this day, and the work of revivalists ensured that old-time music, once in danger of dying out entirely, is probably heard and played now by more people than ever before. The classic labor songs that emerged from bloody Harlan and other battlefields in the class war are still sung today, and there are still musicians working in these idioms both as preservations and as practitioners of a living tradition.


Recommended reading and listening:

  • All That is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in Rural Appalachia by David E. Whisnant
  • Pistol Packin Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folk Song by Shelly Romalis
  • Mountain Music of Kentucky
    Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith


[1] David Whisnant, All That Is Native And Fine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983) 7.

[2] Dunaway, David K. “Charles Seeger and Carl Sands: The Composers’ Collective Years,” Ethnomusicology 24, no. 2 (1980): 159-160.

[3] John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwarz, liner notes to Songs from the Depression, New Lost City Ramblers, Folkways, FH 5264, vinyl, 1959.

[4] John Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky, various artists, Smithsonian Folkways, SF 40077, CD, 1996.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Faier, Billy, “Review of The Essential Kingston Trio.” No Depression, September-October 2006. (Quoted).

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